Wan to WTF?

« previous post | next post »

Tobin Harshaw, "Weekend Opinionator: The Battle Over the Battle in Gaza", 1/17/2009:

Even natural allies are wan to fully praise anybody who devotes a long article to touching the third rail, witness Gerecht’s letter to Goldberg.

The context makes it clear (I think) that Harshaw means this to mean "… are reluctant to fully praise…".

It would make phonetic sense for "wan" to be a malapropism for "wont" — there are a certain number of real examples of this out there, e.g.

If you can’t see the justice in war (as so many Democrats are wan to do) then you can never lead from a position of righteousness.

Semantically, wan meaning "indicative of weariness, illness, or unhappiness" works as as a way to express the concept of reluctance.

So apparently this is an unusual sort of error (or innovation, as you please): a construction ("wont to VERB") shifted to another lexical item by phonetic similarity ("wan to VERB") and then re-interpreted figuratively, inverting the meaning ("accustomed to fully praise" → "reluctant to fully praise"). An eggcorn with a half gainer, so to speak.

Except for the confusion with wont, I like the new construction — there are all kinds of things that I'm wan to do. Come to think of it, a fair number of them are also things that I'm accustomed to do.


  1. Sili said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 10:01 am

    Interesting. As a non-native speaker I had no trouble interpreting the construction. In fact if you hadn't pointed it out, I'd never have considered it to be 'non-standard'.

  2. Wesley said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 10:47 am

    But do we really need this construction when we have loath?

  3. Mark Liberman said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 11:00 am

    Wesley: But do we really need this construction when we have loath?

    Loath is good. But wan has a different vibe: it's not that you find the prospect hateful or loathsome, you're just kind of weary and dispirited about the whole thing.

    Anyhow, what are you, some kind of lexical malthusian? That's not the can-do attitude that made the English language what it is today.

  4. Bruce Rusk said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 11:12 am

    Wan is also a great word because for much of its history it had two nearly opposite meanings: (dully) dark and (unhealthily) pale.

  5. Nick Lamb said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 11:29 am

    Ooh "lexical malthusian" is good. I am sure I'll find a use for that.

  6. Brett said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 11:31 am

    It is probably relevant that "wan praise" is an established phrase, if not a particularly common one. It means more or less, "faint praise," but it has subtle connotations of its own. Google turns up a number of references to it in diplomatic or legal contexts, and they accord with my impression that to call praise "wan" implies that it is unenthusiastic but sincere. On the other hand, the more common formula, "faint praise," might imply that the one offering the praise is intentionally being backhanded.

  7. Wells Hansen said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 11:36 am

    This expression is formed by processes common in language change. As Mr. Liberman and many wiser than I have noted, this innovation makes good use of meanings long associated with "wan". Although Mr. Harshaw's use of "wan to…" is novel, it think it may be more "innovation" than "eggcorn". Admittedly hasty LexisNexis and Google searches have not revealed to me an instance in which "wan to .." is anything but a mistake; in cases where the meaning is clear, the writer intends "accustomed to" (i.e., "wont"). Mr. Harshaw is a careful writer elsewhere and his intended meaning in the original article is, as Mr. liberman notes, clear. I wonder whether or not Mr. Harshaw crafted this innovation, perhaps even anticipating this discussion.

  8. Jens Fiederer said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 12:33 pm

    While it does not succeed in being a cliche, it IS a creative use of language. I don't think this would have been worthy of any comment except perhaps a spot of praise if there had not been the suspicion that it was an accidental construction.

  9. Robert Coren said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

    If it drives out the use of "reticent" as a general synonym for "reluctant", I'm all for it.

  10. Bruce Rusk said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 1:33 pm

    A quick google suggests that this is not strictly Mr. Harshaw's innovation. While many cases are typos, in the two cases below "wan" seems to mean "reluctant," "wary":

    I am wan to give a site here, as I cannot validate authenticity of any and own no porcelain dolls. Best would be to send for a valuation to a few sites


    Thus, the many critics of the current, wildly inequitable subsidy system were wan to vote against the bill for fear of losing their hard-bargained-for gains in food security or sustainability.


  11. Phillip Jennings said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 2:47 pm

    As 'wan' spreads, 'wont' must perforce retreat. This is already an endangered word, please let's preserve its natural range.

  12. Adrian said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 2:54 pm

    One problem with "wan", whatever its meaning, is knowing how to pronounce it: /wann/, or the same as "one"

  13. John Cowan said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 3:16 pm

    Adrian: "wan" belongs to the LOT lexical set.

  14. Thor Lawrence said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 5:27 pm

    Off at a tangent to the main discussion, what is intended by "third rail" in the context of the quote?

  15. blahedo said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 6:36 pm

    I *love* the phrase "lexical malthusian".

    @Thor: In this context, "third rail" is a (possibly just American) term referring to a political issue for which expressing sympathy for *either* side is politically dangerous, even when just doing nothing is clearly not a viable option. The classic third rail is Social Security: inevitably we will either have to fund it better or decrease benefits, but proposing either one is something most politicians are, er, wan to do. The derivation is from subway/metro transit systems where the trains run physically on two rails while a "third rail" carries the electricity—and while a human can walk over the main support rails, touching the third rail is lethal.

  16. Melissa said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 7:16 pm

    I have only ever heard the word wan used in the phrase "a wan smile", which could easily be mistaken for "a reluctant smile", especially if not encountered frequently. Maybe that was the source of the writer's confusion?

    Sometimes when you find out the precise meaning of a word, it's different from what you thought, because an approximate meaning was enough for you to understand all the sentences you've heard it in.

  17. Rubrick said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 7:48 pm

    I had trouble parsing the sentence at first, not because of the new usage of "wan", but because of the comma before "witness", which should surely be a semicolon, colon, or dash.

  18. nbmandel said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 9:48 pm

    I can kind of see how "to be wan to" might come about but I find the usage very confusing, certainly in the present example, as my first impulse is to regard it as an misspelling of "wont" (which, spelled like "won't," pronounced like "want," and obscure in use and derivation, is just asking to be misspelled and indeed misunderstood).

  19. JimG said,

    January 19, 2009 @ 11:20 am

    Personally, I think Tobin Harshaw got caught using the wrong word. The simplest explanation, it seems to me, is that he learned this one incorrectly. The justifications of his use seem a bit tortured.

    I'm intrigued that some of us use 'loath' instead of 'loth', and that the dictionary treats them as identical. Loathing has the connotation of hatred or disgust, while (as I learned it), loth usually carries the sense of unwillingness or a disinclination to vary from custom.

  20. Morten Jonsson said,

    January 19, 2009 @ 11:33 am

    "Loathing" is from "loathe," not "loath." Not the same word, just close cousins.

  21. Arnold Zwicky said,

    January 19, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

    JimG: "I'm intrigued that some of us use 'loath' instead of 'loth', and that the dictionary treats them as identical. Loathing has the connotation of hatred or disgust, while (as I learned it), loth usually carries the sense of unwillingness or a disinclination to vary from custom."

    There are two different (though historically related) words here, differing in spelling, part of speech, pronunciation, meaning, and syntax. There's an adjective "loath/loth" (with final voiceless Θ) 'reluctant, unwilling' that takes infinitival complements ("I am loath/loth to criticize you"). And there's a transitive verb "loathe" (with final voiced ð) 'despise, dislike intensely, feel disgust for' ("I loathe critics").

  22. Arnold Zwicky said,

    January 19, 2009 @ 1:13 pm

    More on "loath/loth" (adjective 'reluctant') vs. "loathe" (verb 'despise'). I reported above on the standard spellings and pronunciations; this is what you'll find in the OED and in Brians's Common Errors. I should have realized that the pair were in Brians for a reason: the spellings (and probably the pronunciations too) are very frequently confused. There are plenty of hits for the adjective meaning 'reluctant' spelled "loathe" and for the verb meaning 'despise' spelled "loath" or "loth". (Hard to tell what pronunciations are associated with these spellings. "Cloths" is a common misspelling for "clothes", but I think the pronunciation still has a voiced interdental fricative.)

  23. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 4:30 pm

    Contrary to Adrian's comment, I like "wan" used in this way because, if you pronounce it phonetically (which people are likely to do because they haven't often heard it in public discourse), it sounds like whining, like a baby crying for milk.

    So in a phrase like "Even natural allies are wan to fully praise anybody who devotes a long article to touching the third rail…" it can sound not only like they are reluctant, but that they're whining about it.

  24. Boris said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 5:16 pm

    After I studied vocabulary for the SAT (10 years ago), they fall into three categories for me. Some, I fully internalized and fin unremarkable in everyday use (garner, incarcerated, etc). Some, I long since forgot (can't give an example, obviously). But a few others, I remember the exact definition as presented in the study guide. Wan is one of the latter. Sickly Pale. I don't think I have ever seen or heard it used in a sentence. And it took me a moment to even realize I know the word. After I did realize it, of course, I was thoroughly confused as to its meaning in context.

  25. Gerg said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 4:04 pm

    Hm, a friend just used an expression which I believe is an eggcorn or snowclone or something, though I'm not sure what:

    "At a time when GM and Chrysler are clamoring over each other for taxpayer handouts…"

    Searching on Google turns up this phrase used elsewhere. I'm not sure if he thinks "clamoring" is just a synonym for "climbing" or if he thinks they're all trying to out-shout each other. I suppose the latter would be an eggcorn and the former, er, something else.

  26. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

    Gerg: In this context I could see "clamoring over" as an eggcorn for "clambering over."

  27. Arnold Zwicky said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 9:26 am

    To Gerg: the reverse substitution ("clamber" for "clamor") has been reported in the Eggcorn Forum, here:

    clambering for attention

    I particularly like this one because I found it in a scholarly work (how are the mighty fallen!). A Google search turns up others, e.g. this one in the preface of a book published by Cambridge University Press:

    “While this volume has been in preparation, we have discovered that if you scratch an anthropologist, you are likely to find a paper on names clambering for attention.”

    Another from Carcanet Press, indicating that copyeditors and proofreaders everywhere should be drinking more coffee:

    “Captain Ahab, Odysseus, Huck Finn, characters from The Satanic Verses who cause security problems, characters so minor that they are guttering out, all clamber for attention.”

    In fact, a cursory review suggests that this might be a particularly British (and Australian and Kiwi) eggcorn.

    I also rather like the visual imagery: rather than clamoring for attention, these entities (whatever they happen to be) bodily scramble over one another in an effort to get to the top of the heap.

    Last edited by cherrymary (2007-06-22 03:34:23)

RSS feed for comments on this post